Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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Saying I Love You in Late February is Not Easy

First, some background:

Once upon a time, in the woods of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern North Carolina, I worked as a camp counselor at two Lutheran summer camps.  These four summers were the hardest and most magical times I have known.  I remember laughing until I cried during the nightly skits, and I remember crying until I fell asleep when it was week 4 (out of 9) and I just wanted to go home.

It was camp.  It was life to the full, and then fuller.

Every week had a routine, a rhythm of ice-breakers and opening worship and the first night (with accompanying tears from the camper who would also cry when it was time to go home at the end of the week).  There was activity time, creek-walking and canoeing, ropes course and the zip-line.  And then, as the week began to spill toward its inevitable end, we counselors began to prepare for our most sacred task of the week.  Affirmations.

Affirmations took place during the final worship service.  During an extended time of quiet singing, each counselor would take each camper, one by one, to a spot on the dirt floor of our outdoor chapel.  There each counselor would begin, “Here are some incredible things I noticed about you this week…”, “You are so good at…”, “I really appreciated this about you…”  We were only supposed to talk for about 3 minutes, but mostly it went longer.  It was an inspired time, quite literally, and while I hope that our campers were changed in receiving the affirmations, I know that the counselors were changed by giving them.

The change began sometime on Wednesday when we realized that affirmations were coming.  Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to see one kid as ‘trouble’ or another as ‘a leader’, a time was coming (and coming soon) when we needed to say more.  We dug for adjectives and examples, we watched them interact with one another, we looked for signs of wisdom, compassion or creativity.  We prayed and watched, prayed and watched, because the time was coming when we had to speak.  Sometimes we were so exhausted that it all just seemed annoying, one more thing to do, and what-in-the-world-am-I-going-to-say-about-her; but we also knew it was a holy task.

And if there was any doubt, the actual giving of affirmations put that to rest.  It was a weekly miracle.  Sure, we stumbled, and there were seeming ‘duds’ now and then (darnit, I should have watched that kid more closely), but words would also come rushing, kids’ faces would light up, and oh so often, the one who drove you crazy all week would leave you in tears.

Its been twenty years, and I still remember.

****

Now.  Back to life, back to re-a-li-ty:

I originally planned to finish and publish this post on Valentine’s Day.  My take-away was simple: a challenge to watch our loved ones closely, and then the discipline to tell them beautiful and true things about themselves.  Affirmation, in real life.  Ready, set, go.

But then one child got an ear infection– a bad ear infection that eventually burst her eardrum.  On the same day that the car tire burst.  A week after the rotor and brake pads had to be replaced.  At the same time that the ice on the back porch roof started melting into the kitchen.   Just a few days before I got strep throat… really really bad strep throat, like screaming every single time you swallow strep throat.  And it was all a prelude for the four-day school break followed by yet another snow cancellation.

Ugh.

Heart-warming, thoughtful affirmations for all my loved ones?  How about I hold back a tirade when you spill your milk for the third time today?  How about I don’t throw my checkbook at the mechanic just to see his reaction?  Happy Valentine’s Day everyone.

Here’s the reality friends:  February is hard.  This whole being-a-grown-up-thing can be brutal.  And I refuse to give you one more thing to do.  Instead, I want you to sit down with me for a moment on this patch of warm earth.  Can you hear the crickets and the guitars?  Good.  Now let me tell you something:

You are doing a great job.  Really.  You, the exhausted one.  You do so much in one day, so many small, mundane acts of love, you don’t even realize the self-sacrifice that it part of your regular routine.  You fall down and keep trying.  You make mistakes and apologize.  Your love runs deep, and that’s part of what makes all of this so hard, because you actually long to do right by the people you love.  And you’ve come so far already.  It hasn’t been easy.  Today won’t be easy.  But you’re doing it, friend.  You’re doing it.

You are amazing.  Even in February.  And if you can be like this at the end of a long winter, well…  just wait until spring.

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Love in an Age of Cat Litter

Our first three encounters were as follows: an anti-Valentine’s Day party, a Habitat for Humanity roof, and a church vestibule–closely followed by an apple tree in the Pizza Hut parking lot.  It was 2004.

I had gone to the party in February looking for him, a friend having baited me, “You’ve got to meet this guy.”  I wasn’t impressed, neither was he (he doesn’t even remember meeting me), and we went on with our Valentine’s Day disdain.  This might have been the end of the story, except…

That summer, Habitat was building three houses in a nearby neighborhood, and I was volunteering.  I wasn’t thrilled about heights, but it was time to put on the shingles.  Nail gun please.  He walked by on the sidewalk below.  “Who is that?” he asked, head foggy from a summer cold.  I waved and tried not to fall to my death.  “I need to meet her,” he resolved, and he would–but not until October.

October 15th, 2004.  An organization named Sojourners had organized a bus tour about faith, poverty and politics in the lead-up to that year’s presidential election.  There was an evening church service and I didn’t want to go.  “I’m too tired,” I whined to my friend, “I’ve had a long day.”

She wasn’t deterred.  “C’mon, I don’t want to go by myself.  We can leave early.  C’mon… please?”

It’s a good thing that I said yes.

I saw him as soon as we entered the church.  He was sitting in the vestibule, waiting for someone.  He smiled (I caught my breath) and we walked up to him.  When his friend came, we all went in together.  I don’t remember much about that service, but I do remember what his hands looked like holding the bulletin.

Afterwards I offered to drive everyone home, and he suggested a stop in the Pizza Hut parking lot.  “There’s this really great apple tree” he said.  He climbed it, ripping his coat in the process, and handed us apples that were indeed amazing.  Now my friend (bless her) was the one who was “tired” and insisted that we drop her off first.   I drove him up the hill to the house he had been renovating for three years, and his black cat came out to meet us.  There was a long pause.  “Would you like to come in and meet my roommates?”

Yes.

****

That was then, and this is now.

And now, the cat litter stinks.

Admittedly, it is my fault that the litterbox is in our bedroom.  Our most recent housemates came with a lovely dog who charmed everyone except for the cats.  Our third-floor bedroom was the one place in the house off-limits to the dog, and so this is where the cats took up residence.  In the summer, we left the window open and they used the tree for access, the world for their litterbox.  But winter was coming.

I began to imagine piles and stains in every corner of our room.  My mom had this problem with her cats, and I worried that it was some kind of family curse.  What to do?

I brought the litterbox upstairs.  The felines were grateful, but my husband (he would be the apple-picking guy from the first paragraph) was concerned.  What if we forgot to change the litter?  This was our bedroom after all.  Wasn’t there another way?

Oh no, honey.  This is the only solution.  It will be fine.  I will change it regularly.

(You can see what I’m doing instead.  Cat litter or blog post… cat litter or blog post?  Where is that laptop?)

After eight years of marriage, there is a lot of cat litter in our lives.  School loans to pay, uncapped markers all over the floor, and piles of faintly mildewed laundry that will need to be washed again.  We finally finished the porch, and now the two-by-fours that support the structure of our house are rotting off.  The dishwasher broke again (that was the best warranty we ever bought), and the lawn needs to be mowed before we lose one of our children in it.  Somebody needs to call the internet company and figure out why the auto-billpay stopped.  Somebody needs to put the girls to bed and figure out how to get them to stay there.    

Once upon a time, Cinderella married her prince, and then they were very, very tired for a decade.

****

It is true that I love my husband more now than I did eight years ago.  There are things-beautiful things-that I couldn’t have known about him during the giddy season of our relationship.

I couldn’t have known how he would support me during the lowest points of postpartum depression when I alternated between vacant stares and out-of-control sobbing for months.

I couldn’t have known what he would be like with our daughters–silly and patient, enthusiastic and firm– or how he would teach them to soak dried beans, make blueberry pancakes from scratch, and identify every edible plant in the urban landscape.

I couldn’t have known that he could design and build a tool shed, wood shed, porch and chicken coop on the weekends; or how proud I would be of his weekday work with neighborhood groups and vacant property.

I may have suspected all this eight years ago, but now I know it.  As I know him better, I love him more.

However.

This love, while wider and deeper, is no longer the felt experience of our daily lives, at least not in the way it was in 2004.  There is a lot of cat litter to contend with, and cat litter (bills, chores, screaming children, etc.) isn’t a great medium for romance.  We spend a lot less time staring into one another’s eyes, and a lot more time scheduling the family car.  And while I know that it would be impossible, perhaps even undesirable, to feel giddy for a decade; I mourn the loss of our fascination with one another.  I regret that I often take him for granted.

I forget that this all might not have been.

More than anything, this is what we have lost in eight years, and this is what I want to reclaim.  In 2004, I knew that our relationship was a miracle, that the amazing convergence of two people willing to say, “yes, as long as I live” to one another is not something that everyone gets to experience.  I might have skipped the anti-Valentine’s Day party, refused to go out on the Habitat roof, told my friend, “no, I’m sorry, I just can’t make it tonight.”  Would we have met anyway?  I don’t know, but if we had, it still would have taken a succession of blessed encounters to bring us together.

My husband is not a given, he is a gift; and I want to tattoo it on my hand:  This all might not have been.  But the past tense serves the present because the miracle has not yet ceased, indeed today together is also a gift.  Even if today is hard, even if we feel like we’re just surviving, even if we forget to say “wow” and “thank you.”  It is all a gift, not a given.  Every Single Day.

And so, to my husband, on this anniversary, I say:  I just changed the litterbox.  For you, babe.  For you.